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Better Half Is the First for Lakers

They look strong for the most part against Clippers, then they have to fend off a pair of late three-pointers for a 106-103 victory.

March 18, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

It had been a long time since the Lakers had swamped someone with their talent, since it was something other than a great effort to score enough to win, let alone live up to the hype, even for a half.

This was coming, probably, but neither might one discount Clipper karma. Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone were healing. Jet lag did not pull at the bottoms of their shoes. They held a practice, and almost everybody came. April's out there, closer.

On Wednesday night, a month before the playoffs would start, the Lakers held off the Clippers, 106-103, at Staples Center, at the end turning a 17-point lead into one last, frantic defensive possession.

It was hardly seamless for the Lakers, and their occasional disregard for the finer defensive points was enough to send Coach Phil Jackson home troubled, thought not until Corey Maggette and Keyon Dooling missed three-point attempts that would have tied it near the final horn.

But they had a half, a little more, and the Clippers were game, maybe more, and it looked a bit more like November than it had since, well, November. They led, 65-50, and looked better than that.

"The first half, we showed signs of playing the way we want to play," Jackson said.

They're not much for prosperity, though, giving up 53 points in the second half, nine in the final two minutes, enough to make the Lakers gasp.

"We had a meltdown mentally," Jackson said.

After four months of scattered results, the Lakers caught a team on the second night of a back-to-back, played a road game in their home arena and played somewhere near their expectations for part of the night, which, if nothing else, is longer than a fourth quarter.

Bryant, still playing with a pad on his sprained shoulder, scored 27 points and took nine rebounds. Shaquille O'Neal had 21 points (on nine-of-13 shooting) and 11 rebounds before fouling out with less than two minutes remaining. Malone, who stumbled in the fourth quarter and felt some soreness in his right knee, had 17 points and eight rebounds. Gary Payton scored 10 points.

For stretches, they floated with Bryant and Payton, stomped with O'Neal and Malone and rode a taut first half, in which their lead reached 17 points.

They found each other on the run, and open on the wing, and going to the basket.

"With a little bit of work [Tuesday], we started to get an understanding of where we want to be on the floor together," Rick Fox said.

And then the second half came.

"A good team, a better team, one that's playoff bound," Fox said, "would take advantage of it."

The Clippers played Tuesday night in Phoenix, where they won by 12 points. Their first victory in five games and their second in 10 took something from the Clippers' legs, and they trailed the Lakers by a step or two for a lot of the game.

Before the Clippers' third sellout crowd of the season, Elton Brand scored 26 points, Maggette scored 25 and Quentin Richardson scored 21.

From 17 points back in the first half, from 13 in the fourth quarter, the Clippers rushed to the verge of a tie when Maggette made a three-pointer from the top with 17 seconds left. Behind, 106-103, the Clippers forced an open-floor turnover, called timeout and then got two open attempts from behind the arc.

Straining for something like a balanced offense after Bryant saved them in consecutive fourth quarters against Chicago and Orlando, the Lakers made 16 of 20 field-goal attempts in the first quarter, and Bryant had eight points.

Because of court dates next week, and again in April and May, when Judge Terry Ruckriegle has cleared eight days for possible hearings, the Lakers are hoping to familiarize themselves with a system, rather than hold to the crutch of Bryant's game.

So, they had assists on 10 of their first quarter field goals, and on 22 of their first 29 field goals, all in the first half, when they shot 64.4 %.

"There's always lessons to be learned," Malone said, "but we have to realize the things we need to do, we need to stick with."


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Rest for the West

The top six teams in the Western Conference, with their games remaining at home and on the road and the number of games remaining against opponents above and below .500:

*--* 1. SACRAMENTO (49-19) Home games: 6 Away games: 8 500 or better: 11 Below .500: 3 2. MINNESOTA (46-21) Home games: 6 Away games: 9 500 or better: 10 Below .500: 5 3. LAKERS (45-23) Home games: 11 Away games: 3 500 or better: 11 Below .500: 3


*--* 4. SAN ANTONIO (44-24) Home games: 9 Away games: 5 500 or better: 9 Below .500: 5 5. DALLAS (42-25) Home games: 7 Away games: 8 500 or better: 6 Below .500: 9 5. MEMPHIS (42-25) Home games: 7 Away games: 8 500 or better: 7 Below .500: 8


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